Times are tough—and so are our roads. But fear not. The oversize sedan may seem like a historical footnote, but there are plenty of contemporary cruisers that can glide across pavement and won't cost you a fortune. We picked apart seven of these posh rides to discover which is the best sedan for your buck.
$33,195; 121.3 cubic feet; $273.66 per cubic foot
If you've driven an Avalon, you know what it is—a Lexus minus the Lexus name. While the car is decidedly expensive, it drives expensive. And in this price class, the Avalon is pretty tough to touch, with its roominess, supremely quiet interior, and superb fit and finish. It's a big car with the smoothest engine of any on our list, save the Ford Taurus, and a ride that errs on the soft side, but never to the detriment of safety. You probably won't find yourself rallying it around curves like we did—you know, just to make sure that it could (check)—but if you have to hustle it past a surging flow of cars in the merge lane, the 268-hp V6 steams up nicely.
Inside, where it counts, the Avalon is due for a refresh (probably coming for spring), but nothing is radically amiss. The seats are huge and supportive, and only the Chrysler 300 can best the Avalon's front shoulder room (it's nearly a tie, at 59.4 inches for the Toyota and 59.5 for the Chrysler). The Avalon has the best rear shoulder room of the lot and the best rear legroom, as well. The big Toyota gets 20 mpg in the city; of the other V6s, only the Hyundai Azera can match that mileage.
$29,960; 112.6 cubic feet; $266.07 per cubic foot
The LaCrosse is expensive for its interior size, which is the smallest of any car on this list. It is a poised car and the only hybrid in this mix (the hybrid is the base model for the 2012 Lacrosse), which gives it a best-in-class fuel economy of 25 city/36 highway, and at a better horsepower rating than the VW Passat (182 hp versus 170 hp). Volkswagen might counter that its diesel Passat gets better fuel economy than the hybrid LaCrosse, but the diesel VW's price-to-cubic foot ratio climbs to $220.48—still slightly below the Buick's, but not by as much. (More on the Passat coming up.)
Mileage aside, this Buick is far more stable than your grandpappy's car with the Landau roof. It's not exactly a Porsche 911, but that's not what you'd want from a long-mileage cruiser anyway. The problem with the LaCrosse is that, while it's large enough to be compared with the big sedans, it simply can't match up. The Buick has the least amount of front headroom and the worst scores for rear hip, shoulder, and headroom. It also has the smallest trunk. Don't get us wrong—the Buick is a nice car that comes with an extra year and 50,000 miles to its warranty (everything else on this list is at 3 years/36,000 miles). But it's designed to spar with Toyota Camrys, Ford Fusions, and Honda Accords.
$27,170; 122.3 cubic feet; $222.15 per cubic foot
This Chrysler is huge. It's only a hair away from being the biggest car here. But frankly, it's much more expensive than it should be. The finish quality is decidedly lower than average for this class, with lots of sloppy details such as loose padding in the trunk, visible hardware and wiring harnesses—lots of stuff to remind you of the bad old days of Detroit and why you went the import route.
The 300 is a solid driving machine that obliterates highway miles as easily as any car in the lot, but you don't get the comfort of the Avalon, the German attitude of the Passat, or the clean trim and modern design of the Taurus. Plus, the standard 300 brings a five-speed transmission to a battle of six-speeds. That wouldn't be a big deal if you opted for the V8 that Chrysler offers, which overcomes everything with horsepower. But we're comparing the base versions, and this five-speed seems to always overshift on windy roads and never downshift when you need it to. Manually overriding is an option, but it is plagued by delays. The lighting that's reminiscent of a microwave oven and the cheap-feeling controls and dials remind us of the fine work Chrysler has already done with some of its Jeep and Ram products and make us wish the engineers would turn their attention to the 300 next.
$25,495; 120.1 cubic feet; $212.28 per cubic foot
There's no question that the Charger feels more up-to-date than the 300, but this is as much veneer as it is actual revamp. The standard Charger packs a V6, and while the V6 versions of the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang are fine muscle cars in their own right, the Charger without a V8 just begs to be teased as a rental. It's not that the six is a bad engine; it delivers decent—though not ultra-refined—performance. It's that the Charger's exterior and history promise more. Everyone will want to know if your mean-looking car has the mustard to back it up, and the V6 is always going to feel like a cop-out.
Layer on the same kinds of demerits we've applied to the 300 and the Charger is a tough sell. Then again, the price isn't bad for the amount of space you get. And like the 300, the Dodge gobbles highway miles like they aren't even there.
$25,555; 122.4 cubic feet; $208.78 per cubic foot
The Taurus is a darn nice car. It's got a solid ride, a somewhat higher seating position than you'd expect in a sedan (almost crossover altitude), a rocket-smooth V6 that's quick to rev, and a slick interior that's as nice as Toyota's and more modern and stylish to boot. Its trunk is enormous (20.1 cubic feet versus 15 to 16 for the rest of the group), and it finishes either at the front or solidly mid-pack for every interior-space index except one: rear legroom. The Taurus has 38.1 inches, which is tolerable but the worst (in a tie) in this lineup.
The Ford is also the only car in this class that can be had with AWD, which you can get without cracking the $30,000 mark. For drivers in snow country, this makes the Taurus a great deal compared with anything else in this contest. We wish it offered better fuel economy than 18 city/28 highway, but at 4,015 pounds this is one heavy car—nearly 700 pounds heavier than the Passat.
$25,495; 123.5 cubic feet; $206.4 per cubic foot
The Azera and the Taurus are nearly identical on price. On interior space, the Azera's the winner by a nose, and it really feels large on the inside. (We know some livery cab drivers are sorry to see the Crown Vic go, and this is a front-wheel rather than rear-wheel driver, but you'd have to think this Hyundai makes sense for that crew.) This car has the best headroom by far and the most front legroom in this group—there's two more inches of legroom than in a Chevy Suburban! The Azera ties the Taurus for worst rear-seat legroom, but, as we noted with the Ford, 38 inches is still decent.
We like the Azera, but it could stand a few upgrades. The trim seems cheap, and the 3.3-liter V6 engine, while potent, isn't as smooth as what's in the latest Hyundais and Kias. With an Azera update coming in just a few months, all of this is probably on Hyundai's radar. The Azera could get a more polished interior like that of the redesigned Hyundai Genesis, and it may see a much more refined, directly injected 3.0-liter V6, which is what this car has in Korea. If these updates come to fruition, then the Azera—already a nice car—probably becomes a slam dunk to win this segment.
$22,690; 117.9 cubic feet; $192.45 per cubic foot
Not only is the Tennessee-made Passat the most car for the buck, but it's also got a ton going for it. You get a big, quiet cockpit, for one thing. Euro-snobs will say it's a watered-down version of the smaller Passat sold only in Europe, but when dealing with blighted roads, you don't want the puny Passat; you want the one with broad shoulders! Not that it's flawless—not by a long shot. The five-pot motor is our least favorite VW engine since the air-cooled ones of yore... Well, OK, it's not that bad, but it's coarse and slow to wind up, and it reminds us that we'd much rather have the far smoother 2.0-liter four or even the narrow-angle six.
Actually, the way to go is to get the aforementioned diesel (yep, now you're at $25k) and its 31/43 mpg—along with torque that's the same as, or better than, anything else in this class. Mate it with a manual six-speed and you'll have a very big interior (pretty much on par with every other car in the class) plus some sporty character that is rare among sedans. Equipped in this manner, the Passat is still no Autobahn-bombing, buttoned-down Audi, but it's taut enough. Asking for more is asking for another breed of car, and that's not what big-car buyers want.